Photographing Mont St. Michel

The first destination on our recent trip to Brittany was the famous Le Mont Saint Michel. This medieval walled town built on a large granite rock is a world-renowned tourist attraction and is probably well-known to any photographer.

Despite the heavy promotion by Brittany, the island lies on the east side of the small river Le Couesnon, and that puts it just a few meters inside the Normandy region. But depending on who you are talking to, the famous abbey quickly changes its geographical affiliation. ;) So check who you are talking to first because the French are very sensitive to this “small” detail.

Mont St. Michel is simultaneously a bizarre and an awesome sight. It’s built on a huge and lonesome granite rock amidst the flats of the estuary — it’s surrounded by nothing other than sand, mud and moor.

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Mont St. Michel seems to be the second most popular tourist attraction in France, just after the Eiffel tower. So we expected the area to be touristic, but nothing could prepare us for the gigantic parking lot with dozens of people dressed in orange coordinating the flow of incoming cars and buses. They are definitely prepared for the millions of tourists visiting St. Michel each year!

Boji was appalled by the magnitude and modernity of the operation and tried to find an alternative, but to no avail. If you want to visit the abbey, you have to use the huge parking lot, then take a free shuttle bus which brings you directly to the island. As limiting as this approach might be for photographers, it’s probably the best compromise of convenience and safety or the visitors and preservation of the ecosystem around the abbey.

Also there is a construction project in progress which will replace the last hundred meters or so of paved road by an attractive pedestrian walkway. This will probably not help with the photography, but it will make the approach more attractive than it is at the moment.

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Left without any other choice, we joined the thousands of tourists and took the shuttle bus. Minutes later we got another shot of modern reality: inside the medieval walls the pretty, quirky Gothic abbey has been into a thriving mixture of souvenir shops, restaurants and bars catering in a multitude of languages to the hordes of tourists squeezing through the narrow streets.

But we weren’t ready to give up quite yet. We wanted to get at least one image which portrays the abbey in a romantic way, and all the elements of this shot were still there: a sunset, a castle surrounded by water, low tide, sandbanks with strong shapes. There just wasn’t a way to place the camera outside of all these and pointing back towards them!

On the next day we continued our search. We went back to the parking lot and instead of taking the buses, we followed various footpaths through the moor, but they either ended at a uncrossable ditch full of water or led back to the main paved road. After a couple of hours of this our feet were wet and muddy and we were almost ready to give up. But then we saw one last possibility, and indeed it’s a good one.

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So do this: take the bus shuttle from the parking lot and get out at the first bus stop. Across the street to your left is the small Le Couesnon dam, which you have to cross. You will then see a footpath going off to the left (away from Mont St. Michel). Follow it for about 50 meters, turn right, follow it for another 50 meters and turn right again. Now you are on a levy leading to the Sainte-Anne chapel, which is perfectly official and open to the public. Follow the levy for about 1 km, and you will be at the closest possible point to Mont St. Michel with a clear foreground. All you need now is good light and some dramatic skies. I’m guessing that both morning and evening light will work well, and depending on the sky and clouds, you might need a wide-angle or a normal lens.

When you get to the point that we are suggesting, you might be tempted to get off the levy and march across the moor to get to the wet sand for an even prettier foreground. Boji wanted to do so too, but that’s a bad idea for two reasons: (1) you are hurting the fragile ecosystem and (2) it’s quite dangerous. The ground is very soft and slippery, and even though the water recedes up to 15 km at low tide, it comes back at an incredible speed (we saw it rising!). With almost 15 meters, this area has the highest tidal variation in continental Europe, so don’t try to be a hero!

Ironically, the picture I’m showing below is not shot from the point described above. On the day that we did our scouting we had a lot of rain, so nothing even remotely interesting was possible. The shot below is taken from point C in the map above.

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Have you been to Mont St Michel? What were your experiences?